Poets as World-Processors — A Review of PLACE by Jorie Graham

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PLACE by Jorie Graham

I will confess, I had not read much of Jorie Graham’s poetry until I picked up her latest: PLACE. Sure, I’d read and poem here and there, but not enough to say that I really had a sense of her as a poet. A few things struck me about her poetry right away – the simplicity of her words. Seriously. I’m sure nobody would call Graham’s poetry simple, because it is not, but if you look at any on word, at any one sentence or line, there are no complex words or images, no turn of phrase that makes you stop and repeat it – turn it around on your tongue a few times and say “I must remember this.” Rather, in Graham’s work, at least for me, it is the totality of the poem that you remember – the feeling it gave you, the entire picture it drew in your mind. There is also an ease with which she mentions God – sometimes capitalized, sometimes not. There is a familiarity there but also a lack of fear. God for Graham is as much a fact as any bird, and I envy her the ease with which she mentions and engages with the word, which for me is always heavy, weighted, fraught with meaning.

What I also remember: her structure. I don’t think I could write a poem in Graham’s structure even if I tried, and if I did it wouldn’t come across as authentic. But there is a certain way she writes, a certain way she thinks, that she somehow manages to get down on the page in her own way – her own cadence, and it works in a way that for most might come across as strained, or put-on. Graham’s structure is more than just authentic, it is another way of being, another way of thinking and processing the world. Which is indeed what all poets are – world-processors. I suppose novelists are too, but in a different way. Poets see the world differently and poems are their way of outputting data, and for every poet, that output is different in form and energy, because every poet’s processor is different. It’s why I read poetry at least, and why I write it. To see the world anew through someone else’s eyes, and to find a way to show my vision of a snippet of the world to others.

Graham’s poems meander. There is no straight trajectory to her thoughts. And her poems come off as almost unplanned, as somewhat stream-of-consciousness, but they are not that. Not at all. Graham takes our minds on a journey. She travels with us, but she is very deliberate in the path she takes and the places where she wants us to get to. Reading Jorie Graham’s poetry is about trust. It’s trusting that she will lead us by the hand and take us to a place we weren’t sure we wanted to get to. Often, halfway through a poem I found myself lost, wondering where I was, wanting to go back and start from the beginning, but wanting to trust that if I kept going I would find my way. And then, Graham even alludes to it herself. There is a poem,  “A BIRD ON A RAILING” where she beckons the reader “…go back up / five lines it is / still there I can’t / go back, it’s / gone, / but you -” and that’s where I began to trust her, not to need to go back at all.

And I think that is what Graham is trying to do in “PLACE” is to make the reader a little uncomfortable. To cause us to question where we are both in the poem and in our lives. Each of her poems contains space – and place, sometimes more than one place, and we need to trust that where we begin is not necessarily where we will find ourselves half-way through, and certainly not where we will end, though we might, just might come back to where we started, but different, transported. In a different place entirely, even if we haven’t budged an inch, we will certainly have been moved.

My favorite poem in the book was “END” in which she describes a gate on hinges and a chain, fog, and also autumn. Each and every sound and motion that she conjures and puts together in the poem came alive for me and I could see and hear every moment of the poem. The gate, the chain, the fog and autumn are all together and sometimes separately a violin, a hammering, a silent crowd, a held breath, boots in a field, a farmer, breathing and a dying animal. And the images repeat and circle in around themselves. It is a poem I will never forget.

You can check out this book of poetry here

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